Kimani Fowlin and Megan J. Minturn

In the following conversation, artists and dance educators Kimani Fowlin and Megan J. Minturn discuss their work as it relates to a shared vision for the field of performance and the role of collaboration in creating art as a form of protest. In this conversation, collaboration is defined as the sharing of space, voice, and the creation of a democratic process wherein dancers and musicians are equally present as choreographers and investigators. The choreographer becomes more of an artistic director, whereas the “dancers” explore and mine their bodies with historical and present-day topics for information and movement-making. During the conversation, Kimani and Megan talk about pieces that premiered in the fall 2016 and spring/ summer 2017, as well as a piece that premiered on the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The 2017 political environment was an especially strong impetus to create pieces that served as an aesthetic form of protest; it was equally important to create work that provided a historical thread to frame for the audience the ways in which current realities connect to past injustices. This conversation uses the term protest to refer to a communal expression of discontent to the status quo. Ideally, the art pieces discussed connect and contribute to collective forms of resistance.

Creating Art as Protest

Kimani Fowlin: A way of protest is to find joy in the work of creating and performing. Expressing joy can be considered a form of protest against the chaos of our current moment and the pain inflicted by oppressive actions. Where do we find the joy? My students and I, we look for that in the work we create.

Megan J. Minturn: I agree with you, Kimani. Collaboration and play inherently push us to protest against a culture of individualism that celebrates achievements based on one person’s profits and privilege over that of another. Sometimes when I’m creating work I begin to question how my work will impact an audience, and sometimes I question whether my work can make a difference in a political sense. Kurt Jooss, as quoted by Alexander Kolb in “Dance and Political Conflict,” said “[o]ne should not try, in a piece of art, to improve life or mankind or politics. . . . That is not for the arts do.” (1) Jooss choreographed The Green Table, an iconic antiwar dance. Despite creating what is regarded as a quintessential piece of art that serves to protest injustice, we still do have war and suffering as Jooss anticipates. Nevertheless, his work matters, and while it may not have improved life for “mankind” or humankind as a whole, I would question whether it did not make a difference for the dancers and audience members who experience it. I similarly remember Kara Walker’s recent artist statement saying that her art is “a show of works on paper and on linen, drawn and collaged using ink, blade, glue and oil stick.” (2) She says that her work is not “activist” in any way. Nevertheless, Walker’s work is analyzed for its important role in considering the country’s racist past and present. Despite what either Jooss or Walker may say about their work, the public seems to respond differently; it seems to me that as an audience we desperately want our artists to be storytellers who tell us and inspire us to aspire for something better, for a more just world. Jooss and Walker remind me that art and political activism are different. Yet, we still create and we still need artists to speak up against injustice.

KF: Art and political activism. You can see them as different, but art is constantly responding to society and the injustices in the world. Whether it is seen through the lens of an activist or an audience member who comes purely for entertainment, the purpose of the art is the same. With the activist eye you cannot be passive. This creative platform engages people in a way that potentially accesses agency. I am hoping that this creative expression will have an impact. I’m not demanding or expecting it, and yet through my individual action I wish to create a domino effect. So, I do not stress if it will have an impact—I believe it will. And, it has had some effect in one way or another. You are inspiring me to want to discuss artists that are change-makers.

MJM: I agree that any artistic creation is hopeful, in the sense that you begin with nothing and end up with something that had never existed before. There is transformation and possibility. Both of us create and perform in artworks that deal with social issues and our hopes for a better paradigm, a way of being together and amplifying important voices and stories.

Reaching Back to Move Forward

KF: A project that I created and directed in the spring of 2017 deals with theatre and protest: “Reaching Back to Move Forward.” My college students choreographed to songs from the civil rights movement. The reason we chose this theme for our Spring Dance Concert at Drew University had to do with how impacted our student body was by the election and this presidency. It was our way of searching for answers and potentially finding healing through historical research. This laid a foundation for students to explore this reality through embodying themes from the past that we are again experiencing in the present.

MJM: How did you encourage students to research? What were some of the ways you prompted them to explore the civil rights movement? And many times, at least in my education, I was taught a lot about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but not about other important people like Malcolm X and Emmett Till to gain a fuller scope of the civil rights era. Did you find that students had gaps in their understanding and learning?

KF: Students not only had gaps, they were disconnected from the past. So the work was a way of revisiting the past to allow students to connect more meaningfully, informing their moving forward. To give examples, they had their initial ideas: one student chose Emmett Till’s story, another chose to focus on the people’s march, while others focused on general themes of the civil rights era, this era of unrest and important change.

I noticed that students did not have a historical through-line from previous protests and advocacy work to those of today. Through the work in my class, we were able to connect them to documents and chronicles from the civil rights protests. We had two main research sources on campus: one was the Drew University library and the other was to Drew University’s archives. These physical documents allowed students to have a tactile experience with what happened during the 1960s and ’70s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Drew University in 1964. More than 5,000 people were in attendance for his civil rights speech. The archivists were able to share photos with our students of King here at the school. The archivists also chose photos that would specifically apply to my class’s research of the civil rights period. The students made requests based on the themes of their pieces. For example, they were looking for photos of protest, rallies, formations of people, and in particular the people’s protest that occurred in Washington, DC. One of the student choreographers was particularly inspired by seeing white and black people together side by side with one another in protest. His choreography was based on this theme witnessed in the photograph.

To connect this era of protest with today’s realities, students watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th to better understand the connection of forced labor and prisons in the United States. They had very little prior knowledge about US prisons and the pipeline-to-prison system. This helped show students the connection to the past, which rooted and contextualized their creative explorations (fig. 1). My process aims to support my students’ creativity, embodied understanding, and learning process to encourage the community of choreographers and their collective work. We studied articles and pictures that looked at protest. We created tableaux and movement transitions from tableaux inspired by these photographs. I taught the differences between literal interpretation and abstract interpretation of the visual material. Students had one semester to create work with a historically and socially aligned awareness, which is not a lot of time. Therefore the methodologies embedded into the class were essential.

Fig 1 Poster from the choreography and performance studies class of Kimani Fowlin, co-created by photographer Matt Gianitsos and Fowlin.

I intentionally thought through the course design to encourage students to have agency in theatrical production elements, from costumes to audience engagement. The theatre majors and dance minors would collaborate with student costume designers, who created original costuming for the choreographers’ pieces. This was an attempt to create a more symbiotic relationship between the two departments. The theatre was arranged in a thrust audience setting so that the experience was more intimate. We included civil rights protest songs performed live by the students and interspersed between the dance pieces. This helped set the mood for the upcoming piece. Based on the collective of work, from the production poster and dramaturgy board to the programming order, the students wanted people to leave the theatre with a transformative message (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 The Advantage Arts Program recreates Georgia Douglas Johnson’s A Sunday Morning in the South with Drew University and Newark High School students. The piece was choreographed by Kimani Fowlin. (Photo: Kimani Fowlin.)

When creating the program order, students decided to end the production with a piece about lynching to ensure that audience members were impacted and provoked to advocacy, as opposed to ending the evening on a “happy note.” The student choreographer who responded to Emmett Till’s story created a harrowing piece on lynching; the work focused on characters throughout time that had been lynched. The process and result were passionate for the dancers, the choreographer, and the witnessing audience. It allowed access into a difficult part of American history; the performers and audience were able to view the atrocities of lynching through this student’s artistic expression. This shared and authentic moment connected the audience and performers in an emotional response to history and to the artistic process of the work.

The students came out of this process more confident in their craft, more knowledgeable about history, and more profoundly engaged with one another, their community, and society as a whole. Connecting students with a historical through-line allows them to be informed agents of their academic work as a form of protest, potentially creating dialogue, if not societal change.

MJM: That sounds like an incredible process for students. Working with an archivist to find photos of the time creates more of a personal connection both to the research process and to the topics. You also spoke a lot about the systems you created within your class to support both student creativity and reflection. The mentorship idea is especially innovative and important; it con- nects to what we started our conversation with, which was collaboration as a necessary aspect and an element of protest.

KF: We are not in our silos. We are connected, and the connection is what helps to move us forward. Shirtwaist Six

MJM: That connection is one of the reasons that I rely on collaborating with the dancers in my pieces that I am choreographing or directing. An example of a piece I directed and choreographed with great input from the dancers is the Shirtwaist Six. The piece actually started as a structured improvisation that was performed in a music and technology performance at NYU Steinhardt. I invited dancers who I knew were skilled improvisers to read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, watch a PBS special about the fire, and observe pictures from the time period (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 YaTing Chi dancing in the Shirtwaist Six. (Photo: Peter Yesley for NYC10 Dance Initiative.)

KF: So this relates back to the history that you are sharing. You are creating that foundation for performers to do historical research. This is important to be able to embody the historical elements in a more authentic way by beginning the process with a base understanding of the material. This way, the historical textures come alive in the work, allowing the audience a more tactile response.

MJM: And I think creating from this place is more powerful. Like you said, the historical research was important. Some dancers knew about the fire and its impact on labor laws, while others had not even heard of the fire. And it was not only learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, although this was important too. Visiting the Tenement Museum provided a better understanding of the quotidian realities of people living in the early twentieth century in New York City, specifically that of the young immigrant women who worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. It was important for me to learn more about the protest work that was happening in the industry prior to the fire, and not only to learn about the effects of the fire. Like you said, Kimani, all of this information ended up informing the mood of the piece and our work. As a result of visiting the museum and researching the time period, we separated the piece into two sections, one that worked to represent and imagine the experiences of the women prior to the fire, and a second section that represented the suffering of the women during the fire. We also created a soundtrack to evoke the time period. We used music that was released during this time, including “Some of These Days” by Sophie Tucker, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and clips from a PBS documentary to help place the audience. While the piece began as a structured improvisation, it eventually became more choreographed. Nevertheless, I wanted to keep improvisation as a component of the piece, because it allowed the performers to have agency while performing on the stage and to connect with the audience in a different way. The piece is called the Shirtwaist Six, because there were six women who died in the fire and were never identified. I wanted to perform the piece now in response to the ever-present labor injustices and exploitation of workers, especially many immigrant workers.

KF: Yes, women, immigrants, and imprisoned people. It is based on a system of slavery. We had students watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th to better understand the connection of labor and prisons in the United States, as previously stated.

MJM: I like that both of us use pieces based on historical time periods and events to protest current realities and injustice. I think that audiences can be moved and swayed by making connections from the past to today.

Black Women Artists Responding to Black Lives Matter

KF: One work I would like to discuss that exemplifies the essence of theatrical protest was the black women artists responding to the Black Lives Matter movement as protest art on September 1, 2016 at the New Museum on the Lower East Side in New York City. It was a powerful gathering of black women artists of all disciplines. We “took over” the museum and streets with a resounding and powerful cry of solidarity and activism. We used our art to push our message forward. We were dressed in bright reds that demanded attention, as can be seen in the New York Times piece about the event. (3)

What I most loved about this eclectic artistic protest was that the audience not only bore witness, but participated in the offering. The audience as active participant is one ingredient that is magical in the sharing of art. I try with many works to have the audience participate in some way, whether it is journeying with the performers or continuing the work after the event has finished so that the message continues to move forward through time. Another theatrical protest that is close to my heart is #SayHerName presented by the African American Policy Forum at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on November 20, 2016, where I danced in honor of the black women who have been killed by police brutality. These mothers (of the daughters killed by the police) were present at the event—a physical embodiment of pillars of strength. The audience, along with the mothers, spoke aloud these young women’s names to show that they have not died in vain. Dancing in that charged space was mind-altering. I felt transported and danced with such fury, almost possessed; this helped me and all who bore witness transform. This transformative energy appeared as an expression of joy, which is in itself a form of protest, proving that we will not stop creating or back away from injustice.

MJM: What an incredibly powerful project. I love that you mentioned the collective of artists as a transformative tool. This is something for which in my various projects and collaborations I have become increasingly grateful. And how important that you were speaking the names of and paying homage to black women who have been killed by police. When I hear stories such as these, I find myself hopeful that change will come through collective action.

Monopoly: The Landlord’s Game

MJM: This past year I worked with dancers and musicians to create a piece about economic injustice. Titled Monopoly: The Landlord’s Game, it is based on the well-known game, Monopoly. One day, I was reading the New York Times and saw a book review for Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. (4) I learned that the game was created by a woman [Lizzie Magie] with two sets of rules: one set aligned with the version we play now, with a winner-takes-all model; the other was meant to show a more just system. I was shocked to learn that the game had been created by a woman as a teaching tooland that, nonetheless, the credit for inventing the game was not given to her, despite the patents she held. The life of Lizzie Magie inspired me, especially in the sense that she used her skills and creativity to expose the faults of unbridled capitalism. In creating the dance performance, we aimed to consider both Magie as an Everywoman, someone who because of her gender is not given credit for her work, and also the injustices caused by our current economic system. We considered present-day issues such as for-profit prisons and a lack of affordable housing. The creative team was reflexive to current events, with sound bites and audio used to create a link to past and present realities. Evan Joseph, the composer, employed sounds and sound bites that were informed by both the time period of the early twentieth century and current thinkers and facts. By way of illustration, his soundscape included quotes from both Magie and Noam Chomsky. Dancers did much more than simply learn and perform the movements; they also worked as investigators, creators, and improvisers, setting materials for the piece and inspiring its development. The game created a framework for the discussion, with Monopoly money being used to create the game-board perimeters (fig. 4).

Fig. 4 Dancers in Monopoly: The Landlord’s Game represent trickle-down economics. (Photo: Jeff Schultz Photography.)

I also connect my piece about Monopoly with our previously discussed idea of reaching back in protest of current realities. And I appreciate what you said about expressing joy as a form of protest. I think that as women artists, and dance artists specifically, we find agency within our bodies. Through creating, choreographing, performing, and developing these opportunities we then become agents of what narratives are shared.

Artists as Agents of Change

A collective of artists is a powerful tool in bringing to light what needs to be acknowledged and no longer ignored. Collaboration is key as we create amid chaos. Artists can serve as agents of change, using their craft to protest current injustices, while also using creation methodologies and collaborative processes to subvert hierarchical modes of art-making. In engaging with difficult histories and realities, a sense of community is nevertheless born. This community is then able to take risks, while investigating itself, relationships, and society; playing to inform the creative process; and devising a performance that serves as a form of protest. This can be a messy process, but one that ultimately results in problem-solving and learning through experiential art-making. This enhances our ability as performers and artistic directors to bridge our work with that of change-makers and activists.

Notes

1. Alexandra Kolb, “Dance and Political Conflict.”

2. Blake Gopnick, “Kara Walker, ‘Tired of Standing Up,’ Promises Art, Not Answers.”


3. See https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/arts/design/at-new-museum-a-pop-up-support-system-for-black-lives-matter.html


4. Mary Pilon, The Monopolists.

 

Works Cited

Gopnick, Blake. “Kara Walker, ‘Tired of Standing Up,’ Promises Art, Not Answers.” New York Times. 16 Aug. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2018.

Kolb, Alexandra. “Dance and Political Conflict: Three Comparative Case Studies.” International Journal of the Arts in Society 1.2 (2006): 17–21. Print.

Pilon, Mary. The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print.